The Agile lightning talk cheatsheet


Image from p.173 “Crayon and character: truth made clear through eye and ear or ten minute talks with colored chalks”, (1913), Flickr Commons

In choosing a lightning talk topic, stories of failure are as useful as stories of success! In fact, choosing a sensational topic is actually half the work. I’m reminded of an embarrassing episode in my childhood, when I definitely got it wrong.

A long time ago now, when I was a small child, perhaps 8 years old, my parents decided I needed to get some religious education. They sent me to a youth group summer camp, with lots of groovy young leaders who modelled the behaviour expected of people who were passionate about religious observance. We kids were engaged in outdoor activities, (on a religious theme), lots of singing, (on a religious theme), indoor games, (on a religious theme). Well you probably get the idea.

The highlight of the camp was when the parents and the religious leader of the congregation came to visit. The passionate enthusiastic youth leaders assembled everyone with their mums and dads in a big circle to show off the kids’ newly acquired religious knowledge. The coolest of all the youth leaders welcomed everyone and explained, after the rousing welcome song, that now the kids had an opportunity to ask the religious leader a really good question.

I was, unsurprisingly, the first child to raise my hand. In fact I sprung out of my mother’s lap, barely able to contain my excitement at the incredible question I had to ask. I faced the revered religious leader, and in a loud and confident voice I asked, “Why do we have freckles?”

Laugh you may. I had clearly not understood the first rule of engaging an audience – choose the right topic!

So what is the right topic for a lightning talk?

A good lightning talks tells a story that the audience is not likely to have heard before. Like a TED talk, it is an idea worth sharing. Here are some prompts to help you think up a topic:

  • Great ways to…
  • Great ideas for…
  • What we can learn from…
  • How to … in 3 easy steps

Some of the lightning talks I’ve delivered are:

  • 5 great ways to seed Agile curiosity in your organisation
  • 5 great ideas for competitions that build your team’s Agile knowledge
  • 5 great ways to introduce or reinforce Agile behaviours into a team
  • The Great Pancake Cook up – teaching collaboration
  • What we can learn from our Lean cousins at Alcoa
  • How to make the most of a field trip to another workplace
  • Help – my team has list its mojo!

Telling the story

Bearing in mind that a lightning talk is no longer than 10 minutes, how do you tell the story in just 10 minutes?

Like all good stories, a lightning talk needs a beginning, a middle and an end. Here’s the framework:

  • Introduce your topic
  • Explain something to the audience
  • Parting words

Simple hey?!

Well it should be. The right amount of content is about the amount of content that another person could convey if they were asked, “What was that lightning talk about?”

A lightning talk isn’t…

A lightning talk isn’t a conversation, a rant, a PowerPoint presentation, a video, a sales pitch or a commercial platform for your company or career.

You talk because you love the idea of sharing an idea. As with a TED talk, it “takes the listener on a journey and provides an insight into the subject that they did not have before”*.

How do you tell a good story?

Consider telling a story. Our brains are programmed to enjoy them. Good stories set the scene, they include build up, and of course resolution. They often make the audience laugh, or connect and hopefully reflect on the theme of the lightning talk.

If you are using slides, make them scant and of few words. Where folks are reading, they aren’t listening.

A great lightning talk expresses your curiosity and enthusiasm for your topic. In putting your lightning talk together, ask the question, “How can I convey what excited me about this topic”. This question will help you shape the few dot points that are the middle of your lightning talk”.

Refine, refine, refine, using each sentence for maximum value. Your adrenaline will prevent you from thinking straight, so don’t plan to invent your talk from a few dot points on a cue card. Know every masterfully picked word.

A few words can evoke a world of thought. Think about how a pithy quote can express or cement the ideas you are trying to convey. It’s sometimes a great way to end a lightning talk.

Preparing to deliver

Because a lightning talk is not a speech, a lesson or a lecture, you need to TALK it. Have a run through with your friends and colleagues, practice it in the mirror, tell it to your pot plants, but don’t get up on stage with a script.

One the day

I have little advice for you except to say that those in the audience are unlikely to see your legs shaking.

Go slow. Not only will it make it easier for people to understand you, but they will also be able to absorb what you are saying and reflect on it.

Are lighting talks for the beginner presenter?

I would absolutely encourage a beginner presenter to give it a go. Contrary to popular opinion though, it takes more skill to deliver a fabulous lightning talk than a half hour presentation. Don’t be discouraged. Instead reflect on these top 5 reasons why you should consider giving a lightning talk:

  1. It “gives you a rare opportunity to spend time thinking about a specific topic [you are passionate about] and distilling it down into something you can quickly and effectively communicate to others”**
  2. It is the magnet to connect with other people thinking about the same things as you
  3. For that moment in time, you are a thought leader
  4. It’s an awesome icebreaker at the post conference drinks
  5. It’s scary good.





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